I am reclining in a hot tub in the semi-darkness, jets of water below the surface gently massaging my back, legs and stomach while the aroma of peppermint and eucalyptus rises in the steam. As soft music plays, lights change the colour of the water from blue to green to fuchsia pink… Beside me, on the rim of the tub, stands a cocktail, which I reach out for to sip every now and then.
But this is no ordinary cocktail: it is a magnesium and potassium mix, to help my body absorb nutrients from food. And this is no ordinary hot tub: it is the hors d’oeuvre of the three-course meal that makes up the mud hydrotherapy treatment, an essential ingredient of the famous Henri Chenot detox programme at the Palace Merano in northern Italy.
After 20 minutes relaxing in the hydrotherapy tub, I move to a polythene-covered waterbed, where my body is slathered with warm mud. Don’t panic: this is not mud as we know it – the claggy English variety – but an micro-algae-rich, putty-coloured goo drawn from the seabed, and combined with essential oils, that feels moisturizing as it is applied. After that, I’m wrapped in polythene followed by a heavy blanket, and left to snooze for 20 minutes while the nutrients in the slimy goo soak into my skin.
Finally, dessert. A brisk lady leads me down the corridor to the high-pressure shower where she sprays my body all over with invigorating jets until every trace of mud is removed. Would I like a cold shower to finish? No thanks, I think I’ll pass on that today. But maybe tomorrow (for this is a treatment I will have every day of my six-day stay at the Palace Merano).
My skin is pink and tingling, and I feel fresh as a daisy.
The six-day (seven night) Detox Programme is the most popular course – and provides the backbone – of the menu of health-enhancing programmes offered at Palace Merano. Many devotees come as often as two or three times a year to rebalance and re-set. Maybe they’re recovering from illness, or they work in a high-stress environment, maybe they know they’re under-performing either physically or emotionally and want to understand why, or maybe they feel that – as the years go by – it’s ever more important to prioritise their health and prevent illness, rather than have to deal with it when it arrives. Those of us without any pressing health issues that we know of, but with increasingly demanding and frenetic lives also realise the benefit of a full and thorough health check – along with some welcome time out – to sound the alert BEFORE disaster strikes, rather than once it does.
And indeed, I can’t imagine a more thorough health evaluation. Everyone following the detox programme undergoes a full battery of tests based on both Chinese and conventional medicine. Henri Chenot – who started the centre two decades ago and has an office on the premises – believes it is this combination of disciplines that gives his programmes their USP, and I agree. Based on the results of their tests, a bespoke schedule is drawn up for each guest, designed to address their particular needs. For me, this started with bio-energetic testing of my acupressure points to find out which internal organs may be screaming for mercy without you having a clue, and also which emotions you may be ignoring (possibly at your peril).
I always think of myself as quite calm and balanced. I eat as healthily as I can, I enjoy my high-pressure job, and I sleep very well. I try to maintain a balance between work and home life, despite working long hours. I have my vices (wine and cake), and I don’t take enough exercise or sport, but apart from that I think of myself as pretty healthy – and, touch wood, have never suffered from major illness.
But when the doctor, Frank, applies his acupressure wand to an area between my big toe and the one next to it, I let out an involuntary scream of pain. Something’s amiss. Tentatively, Frank continues, but that whole foot is sensitive. And I thought I was doing fine! When he looks at the computer print-out following the test, Frank mutters, ‘Oh la, la!’, and turns the print-out towards me on the desk so I can see the results for myself.
It shows a graph with a row of about a dozen red blocks, some low and some high. Frank explains that for good overall health, the blocks need to be consistent, between 45 and 65%. Mine are wildly erratic, some as low as 15%, others as high as 82%. What does it mean? Frank tells me my kidneys are weak, my small intestine is squealing for help (who knew?), and my lymphatic system is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Despite feeling fairly energetic most of the time (helped, admittedly, by strong coffee), Frank tells me my body is struggling to deliver the constant output of energy I demand of it, and my reserves are depleted. And another thing: ‘You eat too fast,’ he declares, scanning the sheet. Well, it’s true, I do – and it seems my small intestine was telling him that. ‘You’re always in a hurry, aren’t you?’ he asks. Answer: yes.
But not here. Lulled by lack of caffeine (the only available drinks are water three ways – straight up, with fresh lemon juice or cold-pressed apple cider vinegar – and ‘energising’ herbal tea) it is impossible to do anything here in a hurry. Even with a full schedule of treatments, no-one ever breaks into a trot, or even glances at their watch. The atmosphere is of calm and tranquility, helped by the spacious surroundings, the airy and light dining room, the quiet efficiency and excellence of the staff, and the occasional dashes of humour. ‘Champagne?’ asks the waiter on my first night, before returning with a carafe of lemon water. ‘Cappuccino?’ he enquires at breakfast time … but no, there is only energizing tea or barley coffee, a pretty good substitute for the real thing, actually, which arrived with a cinnamon heart in the froth.
Next day, electrodes are fixed to my head, and I sit for fifteen minutes while unknown electrical impulses uncover my body’s deepest secrets. And it turns out there are a few.
‘You are basically quite a sad person,’ says Frank, and this is true. My friends and colleagues might disagree, but Frank, me and the computer know it’s an undisputed fact. ‘You are extremely emotionally sensitive.’ Guilty, your Honour. Furthermore, ‘You are pulled in too many directions,’ he says. ‘People make too many demands on you. You are like an electrical socket that other people plug into to get a shot of your energy. They go off happy, leaving you exhausted.’ This is undeniably true, with a demanding job, a boyfriend who complains about not seeing me enough, a 24 year-old daughter living at home still trying to find her foothold in the job market, and an elderly mother living 150 miles away who I like to see as often as I can. It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, a lot of responsibility to carry. Suddenly, I feel tearful. But that’s only to be expected – this is early in the programme, when people may feel emotionally fragile. Their familiar structure has been stripped away, they can no longer rely on the crutches of caffeine and alcohol and living ‘front of brain’ to get them through, they may be suffering from withdrawal from these stimulants (along with nagging headaches). But even still, Frank has delivered me some uncomfortable home truths, and the fact is I can’t disagree with any of them.
‘If you continue this way,’ he says, ‘you could become ill – maybe seriously – further down the line. Your body is saying, “Ease up”.’ These are not comfortable things to hear, but it is the whole point of Henri Chenot – preventing – or at the very least, delaying – bad things happening in the future. We are all capable of taking a certain degree of accountability for our own health, and this unique health centre offers you ownership of your own health.
To counter these difficult emotions, they keep you very busy. By the end of the first day, I’ve had my bio-energetic assessment, the mud hydro-therapy treatment, a body composition check (involving more electrodes and computers), a conventional medical assessment, a full body bone-density scan, and an intense deep-tissue lymph-drainage massage.
While not overweight, I am retaining water and have heavy legs (something that has always bugged me). Frank tells me this is a sign that my kidneys are not functioning at their maximum level. I need to slow down, take time over my meals, chew properly and relax.
Day Two starts with the facial energising treatment , which is in a league of its own. Colomba, the (conventional) doctor – after scanning my face and taking in the deep frown lines and dark shadows under my eyes – told me I needed it. This involved a drainage massage using essential oils and a tiny cup, that felt like a pincer, to stimulate the release of toxins. This was followed by an anti-ageing face mask and electrical impulses to stimulate the facial muscles. I could feel the frown lines smoothing out, and when I looked in the mirror afterwards my skin was line-free. Better than Botox!
Later, in my second assessment with Colomba, we talk hormones. She sends me off for a bone density scan, and takes a blood test to assess my hormone levels. I am 60 and post-monopausal, but have been bowling along happily not taking much care of my health, despite my elderly mother suffering osteoporosis.
The results come back. I have osteopenia (the precursor to osteoporosis) in my lower spine and left hip. I am low in several hormones, but particularly one called Dhea, which Colomba gives me a month’s supply of straight away, along with the advice to see an endocrinologist as soon as I get back to London. For the bones, it’s calcium and Vitamin D, and upping the exercise level – walking, swimming, cycling, to at least 20 minutes a day.
With those words ringing in my ears, I head for the hotel pool (there’s an indoor and an outdoor pool) and do 40 lengths without drawing breath, before relaxing in the sauna, and then using the Kniepp – a series of footbaths going from tepid to very cold indeed, to stimulate circulation in the legs.
With the results of my various medical tests in hand, the programme is altered to suit my needs. The daily deep-tissue massage – working on meridian lines, and using the cupping method for maximum detoxification – that is also a daily essential, concentrates one day on my kidney area, another on my heavy legs, and another on my shoulders and upper arms (where I hold a lot of tension).
By this point, I am fasting. Those following the detox programme (which is nearly all of us) eat a plant-based, salt, sugar and dairy free diet of beautifully prepared dishes using only the best quality organic ingredients and served in moderate portions. Breakfast is a fruit platter of some sort (one day the fruit was grilled, with a mango coulis), lunch is a three course affair, as is dinner. For days one and two, you are adjusting to the healthy food, lighter portions, lack of alcohol and caffeine. On Day 3, you fast – consuming only fresh vegetable broths – for 24 hours, to allow your body to cleanse and regenerate. On Days 4, 5 and 6 food is re-introduced until you are back to the regular light and healthy diet.
Meals generally have a starter (hummus with lime, black soy and coconut; green salad with miso dressing; grilled eggplant with soy dressing), followed by a soup (cream of asparagus; Gazpacho; cream of green peppers and peas), followed by the main course (rice-cannelloni with artichokes and zucchini; spinach soufflé; spiced bulgar wheat with yellow pepper sauce, risotto with radicchio, broccoli and pomegranate). No dessert, of course, but a cup of energizing tea to send you on your way.
All this takes place amid the opulent splendour of the Merano Palace – all polished marble, beveled glass and mirror, huge rooms, and peaceful, lush gardens. The town of Merano – overlooked by the mountains of the Tyrol – is famed as a wellbeing centre, offering pure fresh air, and 300 days’ sunshine per year. It is indeed a happy place to be, full of people who appear healthy and relaxed. The town was a favourite of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, who visited regularly (when Merano was still part of Austria, before the boundaries were re-drawn) to ease her asthma symptoms in the clear air. A statue of the Empress sits directly opposite the entrance to the hotel, and many of the streets are named after her. No-one can actually tell me if she stayed at the Palace, but I like to think she did – why else would it be here?
As the days go by, lulled by the routine, nourished by the food and sleeping like a baby, I start to take walks in the fresh air first in the hotel garden, then into the local town and up into the woods. It feels deeply restorative.
By the time of my departure assessment with Frank, I am truly rested and restored – furthermore, I have lost a whopping 2.5k almost without noticing it. As I left Henri Chenot, I made a vow to come back as soon as I could.
Review by Sue Peart